Michael Leonhart: A Fortunate Son
"My mother and father are both dreamersresponsible, loving, amazing dreamers, with great heart, who had the balls and the courage to do their own thing creatively," Leonhart said. "They showed me with their lives that when you have an idea, for a movie, for a song, for a book, to just go for it, write it down. I wouldn't change it at all. Growing up in an artist's home... hearing my dad practicing bass arpeggios every morning, going to tons of shows, hearing my mother singing in the kitchen, and my sister singing her ass off by the age of 5...It definitely shaped the person who I am."
Such a family also meant the occasional encounter with other great musicians and celebrities.
"'Uncle Mel' was Mel Tormé, and he was, of course, amazing....my dad had played with Paul Shaffer and David Letterman, and Letterman sent me the coolest toy truck when I was littlebut I had no idea who he was until years later!" Leonhart remembers. "I remember taking walks on the beach as a six year-old with this very engaging woman who had this really interesting accent and hairher name was Liza Minnelli. I was hanging out with Clark Terry and Ray Brown before I had heard any of their music.
"One of my biggest inspirations, though, and preparations for being a studio player and professional musician myself was seeing my dad do the unglamorous, work-work gigs he didn't want to do, putting me and my sister through school and college, supporting a family in New York," he added. "It wasn't all strawberries and cream. Truth is my dad has worked his ass off and it's not always easy. But, yes, there are moments in my mind when I'm surrounded by jazz and rock royalty. I grew up reading liner notes, and I'd be recognizing these amazing people as friends. My father has had an incredible career, but for all the Uncle Mels and the David Lettermans and the Peggy Lees, there were those times seeing my dad play at tiny jazz clubs where there were not a lot of people, sometimes maybe five people totalbut some of the most incredible music you could imagine was being created.
"After my mom and dad got serious about each other, my mom decided to stop performing and focus on raising my sister and myself," Leonhart recalls. "She didn't do her first solo album until 1999-2000. It was so cool to see her finish her 'debut' album at age 60Bein' Green on Sunnyside (in 2004) an exquisite album. Twists, turns, a real snapshot of her. A little Blossom Dearie, Nelson Riddle, some Jobim...
"One sidebar I have: I played with Yoko Ono, and her son Sean Lennon produced her last album, and of course, I had produced my mom's album," he continued. "I'd be with Sean and Yoko in the studio, and from time to time I would see him faced with the challenge of how to escape the mother-son dynamic and instead focus on the artist-producer relationshipnot an easy task. I remember saying to him, 'I think I have a little idea of what you're going through.' I'm sure the fame aspect makes it slightly more complicated, but nonetheless, it's not easy trying to produce your mother. There's a whole lotta back story there. You come into the studio trying to do setups, get sounds, do business, thinking of a hundred different things, and your mom is saying, 'You look too skinnyor too fat,' and asking about how you're dressedand you're trying to get to the art!"
After "going mass" with Steely Dan, Leonhart soon became one of New York's hottest and studio and session players, winning over 30 international awards by the age of 23, working on over a hundred session albums and soundtracks, and playing with A- list artists from Bobby McFerrin, Mos Def, and Busta Rhymes to Perico Sambeat and the Philip Morris Superband and Sharon Jones and the Dap- Kings, to Bonnie Raitt, Bill Withers, David Byrne and even Yoko Ono, along with many others. At the end of 2002, Leonhart released Slow on Sunnyside Records, which AllAboutJazz listed as "strongly recommended," and for several years, he has played with The Avramina 7. Not a "jazz purist" to the extent of his mentor Wynton Marsalis, Leonhart is at home in Motown-style R&B, 1970s funkadelic, and Chicago/Blood, Sweat & Tears-style "jazz rock." But he has remained fiercely loyal to the straight-ahead jazz aesthetic of the kind of intimate, communicative (both verbal and nonverbal), and above all, intensely personal expression that only true freeform and lengthy improvisation can give.
Despite being in his mid-30s, early in a jazz musician's career, he's already amassed a substantial discography. Leonhart says he doesn't think too much about how his releases such as Seahorse and the Storyteller may fit the continuum of his career, especially when compared with his early days as the "prince of Gen-X arthouse jazz" in releases like Glub Glub (Sunnyside, 1998) or Aardvark Poses (Sunnyside, 1995).